Scherzer pulled in fourth with apparent leg issue (Nats lose 4-1)

The last thing the Nationals needed in Game 161 of the season was to pull Max Scherzer in the top of the fourth inning for any reason other than performance, but that's what they got tonight.

Scherzer was removed from his final postseason tune-up with what appeared to be a right leg issue after he landed awkwardly while throwing a pitch to the Pirates' Josh Bell. Whether his removal by manager Dusty Baker was a move of extreme caution or reason for actual concern is the question that now hovers over the Nats until this game ends.

What transpired after the abrupt pitching change doesn't matter nearly as much in the big picture, but Brandon Kintzler's blown save with two outs in the top of the ninth added to the sour mood of the game for the Nationals, who wound up losing 4-1.

Kintzler, given a rare opportunity to pitch the ninth with Sean Doolittle (who warmed up Friday night) held out, was one strike away from recording his 30th total save of the season. But the right-hander gave up a game-tying single to Sean Rodriguez on a 3-2, two-out pitch, then gave up a three-run triple to Max Moroff to seal the deal and suffer his second blown save in three attempts since joining the Nationals on July 31.

Scherzer had been cruising along, allowing only one of Pittsburgh's first 11 batters to reach base. But on his 54th pitch, with Bell at the plate and one out in the fourth, the right-hander appeared to land awkwardly. He hopped around for a few seconds, then after getting back on the mound appeared to be stretching out his right leg.

sidebar-Scherzer-white-tall.jpgNobody in the Nationals dugout was concerned enough at first to respond, but then the Nationals infield all converged on the mound and asked for time from the umpiring crew. Baker, pitching coach Mike Maddux and director of athletic training Paul Lessard then joined everyone else on the mound for a conversation, which ended with Scherzer walking back to the dugout and eventually the clubhouse far sooner than he expected in his regular season finale.

The Nationals do not typically provide in-game injury updates, but Scherzer's reaction - he seemed to be asking to stay in the game - suggested he didn't believe it was serious.

Nonetheless, this is the fourth time the reigning Cy Young Award winner either departed early or was scratched from a start with an ailment in the final two months of the regular season. Two of the previous three were the result of a stiff neck, one of them due to a bruised left calf that was struck by a comebacker.

Scherzer thus ends his 2017 campaign with a 16-6 record and 2.51 ERA. He amassed 200 2/3 innings in 31 starts, striking out 268 while posting a career-best 0.90 WHIP.

The Nationals already led 1-0 when Scherzer departed, having turned a pair of singles and a wild pitch in the bottom of the second into their lone run. Daniel Murphy led off with a base hit, took second on Jameson Taillon's wild pitch and then scored when Ryan Zimmerman sent a ball back up the middle. It was Zimmerman's 108th RBI of the season, leaving him two shy of the club record he established as a rookie in 2006.

A.J. Cole was thrust into an awkward situation as Scherzer's replacement, but the right-hander responded with 3 2/3 hitless innings of relief, allowing only two Pittsburgh batters to reach base.

Enny Romero, getting perhaps one final opportunity to make a case for inclusion in the postseason bullpen, struck out two and walked one during a scoreless eighth inning to keep the 1-0 lead intact. But Kintzler couldn't finish off the shutout after his disastrous ninth.

Bryce Harper played eight innings in right field, his most since returning from the disabled list. But the star right fielder again struggled at the plate, going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. In four games since his return from a knee and calf injury, Harper is 1-for-14 with a walk and six strikeouts.

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